I also met Sal Piazza, his wife, Rose, and daughter Christine. Though Burbank's 10th relay has evolved into a support-group-turned-festival, Sal sticks to the original mission, completing lap after lap of the quarter-mile track and fulfilling the pledge he made to his family and donors.
At 4 a.m. the track is a lonely place, a quiet and cold loop that has no beginning or end. The memories and well-wishes of cancer patients and caregivers provide a little light, but they're not company. For that, there was Rose Worthen.
Around my second lap, I heard a little "Yay" to my left. It's the city of Burbank booth, and in one small chair is the small frame of Rose under a blanket. She waves pom-poms she made by tearing strips of purple and white paper, and she's cheering me on.
Rose is a night owl and she doesn't mind the late shift. As each walker passes, she offers her little quiet encouragement, shaking the fistfuls of paper.
Five years ago, Rose attended her first relay. In the ensuing months, she was diagnosed with cancer. By her second relay, she had to get special permission to leave her hospital bed to attend. Today, she participates in the Survivors' Lap to celebrate, in her words, "You survived another flippin' year!"
She helps me with a question that had been on my mind since I helped set up the Burbank Jaycees' tent 22 hours earlier. What is it about this disease that creates such a community? How did the Relay for Life go from one man running for 24 hours to symbolize cancer's continuous grip to a tent city offering support to victims, their families and all who form the support network for the stricken?